Does “use it or lose it” apply to foreign languages? Posted by on Jun 18, 2014 in Archived Posts

Did you grow up in a bilingual household without ever really learning the second language? Maybe your parents spoke to you in another language while you were little, but you switched over to English at some point and never looked back. You probably think you have absolutely no memory of that language now, and maybe you resent your family a little bit for not forcing you to learn it. But fear not! It turns out that language may be hiding somewhere in your brain. So, when it comes to learning languages, is it true that “if you don’t use it, you lose it?” 

According to psychologists from the University of Bristol, that language is still engraved in your brain. For the study, the psychologists recruited native English speakers who had learned some Hindi of Zulu while living abroad as children. The study focused on those two languages in particular as they feature a number of phonemes, or the smallest sounds in a language, not found in English. The volunteers completed a vocabulary test in Hindi or Zulu to determine if they recalled any words or phrases in the language. They were then asked to distinguish between pairs of phonemes in their neglected languages. The results indicated that while the volunteers had no recollection of the vocabulary words, they were quickly able to relearn and identify phonemes in their “forgotten” language.

What does this mean for you, dear learner? According to the study’s authors, early exposure to a language can leave traces in our memories even after decades of neglect and disuse. In other words, if your parents exposed you to a language as a child, they left a lasting impression. So, even though you may not have used it in many, many years, you certainly haven’t lost it entirely.

While I haven’t read any studies about resurrecting a language learned later on, such as taking four years of high school Spanish, but I suspect the effect is similar. The earlier exposure leaves bits and pieces of the language embedded in your mind, to be dug up and cleaned off later on if one so chooses. Have you tried to re-learn a language many years later? Did you find any pieces of the language coming back to you more easily or quickly than you expected?

If you haven’t tried, and you’re ready to bring your long lost second language back to life, we can help! Sign up for the free trial of Transparent Language Online and dive back in to any of the 100+ languages offered!

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About the Author: meaghan

Meaghan is the Marketing Communications Manager at Transparent Language. She speaks enough French and Spanish to survive, and remembers enough Hausa to say "Hello my name is Meaghan, I'm studying Hausa." (But sadly that's it).


  1. Diego:

    Great article! I think I witnessed this phenomenon with my mother. We live in Argentina, but my grandmother (my mom’s mother) was Italian and my mother grew up speaking more (a dialect of) Italian than Spanish. However, once she started going to school she gradually lost her Italian. Nowadays she can’t speak a work, although she used to understand my grandmother pretty well when she spoke in Italian. That’s the background, so now to the phenomenon. I once told my mother something about a jeep. The sound for “j” in English is absent in Spanish, so in Argentina we tend to replace it with “sh” as in “shoe” or “s” as in “pleasure”. So I told my mother something about a “sheep” (nothing to do with the word sheep in English) and she asked ‘What is a “sheep”? I was really puzzled because, although it is an English loanword, it’s a fairly ordinary word in Spanish. I just couldn’t figure out why my mother wouldn’t understand me!! So I explained the meaning to her and she said “Oh, you mean a ‘jeep'”, using the correct English pronunciation of this letter ‘j’. I then figured out that there is the phonemic distinction in Italian between “j” (“ge, gi” in Italian) and “sh” (“sce, sci” in Italian). For her these sounds were totally different, but for me they were quite interchangable. Pretty awesome!! Don’t you think?

    • meaghan:

      @Diego It’s so fascinating how a language can be embedded in our minds without us really realizing it! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. margaret nahmias:

    I am living proof that it work later in life. I stopped learning Spanish in 2002 after leaving high school, and did not pick up again until 2009. I remember what I have learned without much struggle.

  3. Emily:

    I heard that if you get to Advanced Low on the ACTFL Proficiency Scale, you never really lose the language ability, much like riding a bike.

  4. Amanda:

    I took four years of German in HS. Over the years I dabbled with Spanish and Japanese, and any time I didn’t know a word in those languages, if I knew the German one I thought of that before the English word even though I hadn’t used them in years. About 7 years after the last German class I took, I moved to Germany. I live on a military installation surrounded by Americans so I don’t get exposed to people speaking German as often as I would if I lived in the community, but I found that I remembered a lot of basic things and understood a lot of words than I heard or read, even if I wouldn’t have been able to think of them if I’d tried to recall what they were on my own. Although I haven’t had time to take a formal class, the more I have gone over basic things that I would have learned then, the easier it was to pick back up.

  5. Michael:

    This one is so true. i think this article explains why i’m so interested in learning chinese. i have ever learned it when i was a child, then completely forget that after so many years. many chinese native speaker said that my accent is native-like. maybe it’s related to this aspect

  6. Joe:

    This is a great article, it kinda happened with me, i was born in germany, (mum’s german) then at about 6 months, we moved over to england to be with my dads side of the familiy, who were all english, and when i started speaking, what i was able to say in english i could say in german, but then mum started working, i went to school, and german wasnt needed, so we stopped speaking it, i’m 17 now, and I’m doing german A-level, i did it as a 1 year GCSE too, i think that speaking it when i was younger really helped pronounciation, as i speak with more of a german than english accent (speaking german), but i hope i’ll be able to speak german a lot more, mum works from home, but she tends to mix german and english up, if she’s been speaking it, so she isnt very keen on speaking it 🙁

  7. Mrs Figg:

    Could it be in the genes? I have a distant link to a French ancestor and when I learned French at school (40 years ago) I found it relatively easy.

    Having not used my French at all since my ‘O’ Level I started going to a French conversation class two years ago and was told I have a good French accent.

    I’m really enjoying the classes and have remembered much which I thought had gone for ever.

    • meaghan:

      @Mrs Figg As far as the scientific and language-learning communities know right now, there is no magical “language gene”. Our friend Benny over at Fluent in 3 Months wrote a great piece about that myth, if you’re interested in reading more about it!

      I believe that your perceived “difficulty” or “ease” when learning a language comes from your motivation to learn it, your background with languages, the resources you have available to you, etc. 🙂

  8. Johann Kotze:

    Great article! I have 2 comments:

    1) Not only do the sounds get embedded in your brain, but I suspect that the different syntax frees your mind from the rigid, naïve thinking of monolinguists. Therefore, I guess that learning any second, unrelated language might be easier for such kids.

    2) There certainly can not be anything in the genes. What might be perceived as such, would be the effect of the passion involved when discovering your ancestry.

    Dankie! (Afrikaans) Siyabonga! (Zulu) Thanks!


  9. Marcus:

    I am certain that “learnt” languages get stored by the brain in some off-line library if they are not used everyday. I am English. I spent the first 5 years of my life living in Germany being looked after by a young german au pair who only spoke to me in German. I have no recollection of this, but my mother says that I understood everything in both English and German but preferred to speak in German. Aged 5 we returned to England and I had absolutely no need to speak German again until I was 28, when I moved to Switzerland. When I first arrived I thought that I could not speak any German. Within 6 months I was completely fluent in German again.

    • meaghan:

      @Marcus Very cool! Exposure at a very young age is particularly helpful. Even if you totally walk away from it for years and years afterwards, your brain can make out the distinct sounds of the language that you may never use in your first language, which is a huge help when (re)acquiring a second language as an adult. 🙂

  10. Shana Thompson:

    Hi Meaghan,

    Interesting read and great spark for similar stories in the response section!

    My mom visited my grandpa while in a nursing home a few years ago, and heard him talking (almost) fluently to a nurse in French. My grandpa, an American, hadn’t practiced French since his short stay in France in the 40’s; that’s 70 years w/o language practice!

    No need to respond- just thought I’d say…language truly is magical.

  11. Ruth S Valle:

    It’s true. I learned French to get my teaching licences for it and never touched it again for 30 years. Then, I was asked to teach it again two years ago and it went fine. A bit rusty at first, but it wasn’t bad. This past year was my second year doing French again and it went even better. Lots of Netflix and my brain was cooperating fine with it.

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